The National Catholic Review
Peter Henriot
An Interview with Peter Henriot

How is Zambia doing in relation to the millennium development goals established by the United Nations?

Zambia has registered some improvement in the last few years. For example, it is likely that universal primary education will be available by the target date of 2015, and that it will include at least a measure of gender equality—that is, that the number of boys and girls in primary education may be fairly equal by then. And, at least according to estimates by the Zambian government, the spread of H.I.V./AIDS may have been largely halted. Currently, 16 percent of those between the ages of 15 and 49 are infected, but there are encouraging signs of a slowdown in infection among the younger sector, youth under 21. In 1986, the first president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, and his wife went public about the fact that one of their sons had died of AIDS, so from early on, AIDS was talked about. There are a lot of educational programs in the schools, as well as television ads, together with an overall emphasis on the so-called ABC approach: abstain, be faithful or use condoms.

What about the goals of halving extreme poverty and hunger?

Unfortunately, the second part of this millennium development goals target is unlikely to be reached. We have not taken advantage of the agricultural potential in Zambia, and as a result we have not produced enough maize, the staple food of the people. Making matters worse, there has been a severe drought this year in southern Africa. So even if the number of those living in extreme poverty were reduced, they would still not have sufficient access to food. Many survive on one meal a day. Actual hunger shows up in malnourished and stunted children, as well as in maternal mortality, which is also affected by insufficient food. We have one of the highest rates of both childhood and maternal mortality in the world. And our overall life expectancy is shockingly below 40 years.

Is debt relief making a difference in poverty levels?

Zambia is one of the most heavily indebted poor countries. At the beginning of 2004, we had a debt stock of over seven billion U.S. dollars, about $700 per capita for a population of 10 million people. We have been designated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as one of the so-called highly indebted poor countries, and may be granted debt cancellation of up to one half if we meet a series of conditions in reshaping the economy and implementing various forms of accountability. We don’t yet know what will happen. But it is clear that when we began the Jubilee-Zambia campaign 10 years ago, people said you do not cancel debts. Today, though, it is clear that debts are being canceled, and that is a blessing.

What has been the impact of foreign farm subsidies?

It is not just foreign aid that will help a country to turn around in terms of external assistance; it is trade—having an economy that develops products it can sell, and good markets are needed for that. Zambia has high-quality cotton in the eastern part of the country, but this has a relatively low price on the world market because cotton in the United States is so heavily subsidized. So here is a case where the U.S. subsidy for its own cotton growers undercuts the ability of Zambian growers to earn more from its cotton exports.

We talk about fair trade, but what we see happening in Zambia is not fair trade at all, because it is not giving countries that are less powerful a fair share of the market. That is why we were happy to hear President Bush say at the U.N. summit meeting in September that the United States favors abolishing all subsidies.

Why does Zambia reject genetically modified food?

Zambia became well known in 2002 at a time of a severe food shortage, because it said no to the United States’ offer to ship in genetically modified maize. The government, along with farmers and civil society groups—various non-governmental organizations made up of trade unions, women’s groups, human rights organizations and church groups—was concerned about the introduction into the country of genetically modified organisms that might affect agricultural production. Because of research we ourselves had done at the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, we feared that the impact on the small-scale farmers might be harmful, modifying the general agricultural infrastructure. The Zambian farmers save and replant seed, but the genetically modified kind often has a “terminator” factor, so that it cannot be replanted. There are also concerns that the genetically modified food might negatively affect health. Some scientists, too, wonder about the consequences when nature is tampered with by developing seeds of this kind. Nevertheless, the United States has been putting a lot of pressure on Zambia, asserting that it is setting a bad example by failing to address hunger by increasing crop yields in this way.

How serious is malaria?

Malaria is still the biggest killer in Zambia, especially among small children. And if people stricken with it also become H.I.V.-positive, they die very fast. It is said that insecticide-treated bed nets would help, but this assumes families have enough beds. They often do not, and in a large family several members might simply sleep on the ground. It is also a matter of education. In some parts of the country near lakes and rivers, it was found that mosquito nets were being used as fishing nets—for these people, finding enough food to eat was more important than protection against mosquitoes that was required for only a few hours at night. As to medications, some good ones are available now, but usually they are not free, and in any case, clinics charge a fee to treat malaria or any other health problem. The same is true for AIDS medications, the so-called antiretrovirals. The Zambian minister of health recently announced that no clinic should charge for them, but there is still the clinic examination fee for ongoing testing to see how a person taking them is doing.

Is education free?

Education was free at one time, but then under the structural adjustment program imposed by the I.M.F. and World Bank, service fees were mandated. We did a study with Oxfam that showed a decline in both the quantity and the quality of education at the primary school level when families had to pay fees. If you have a family with five children in a poor rural area, the two boys might be sent to school, but not the three girls. The government finally dropped the technical fees, but there were still others, like the P.T.A. fee—what a family might be charged to keep the school building in repair or provide various supplies. And uniforms also have to be paid for. So because of fees like these, a free school is not really free.

Is there improvement in gender equality?

Gender equality is a big issue not only in schools, but also in employment opportunities. Women are frequently employed in the informal sector, in jobs like selling vegetables in the local market, because they are expected to bring in an income to the family. But a woman is expected to do the household work too. As for women in government, the southern African countries have made a pledge to have 33 percent of the members of their parliaments be women. Zambia is nowhere near that, but at least an effort is being made in regard to government positions. In 2001, two women ran for president, and one is now the ambassador to the United States. So, a certain amount of progress has been made.

Where is Zambia in terms of globalization?

Some good things have been happening in Zambia because of globalization—for example, the increased use of the Internet and other electronic advances that connect Zambia with the wider world. And in the area of medicine, globalization has made possible access to AIDS drugs. But the negative side is that globalization is largely profit-oriented. If there is a profit to be made, investors and developers will come in. If not, they won’t, or they will pull out if they do not find the expected level of profits. This points to an ethic of globalization that is not always people-friendly.

Globalization also entails what might be called the asymmetry of power. The nations of the North are bigger, and you see that reflected in institutions like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. There is also the cultural dimension of globalization, with its strongly Western and even American imposition of culture through music, clothes and videos. These cultural values are not always respectful of genuine African values.

How active is the church in Zambia?

The church is very active and growing—Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal. Zambia is a largely Christian nation, and about half the Christians are Catholic. Sunday is a big day. The church is a vital contributor to the development of the country in terms of schools, health care facilities and training programs. In addition, it is a political force in promoting social justice. The three main church bodies—the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia, the Council of Churches of Zambia and the Zambian Episcopal Conference (the Catholic bishops)—cooperate in pastoral letters, voter education and the discussion we are currently having about the constitution. And the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace serves as a vital instrument of the Catholic bishops conference for educating the people about their rights and the need to work against corruption. Over 250 parishes around the country have local committees that promote an understanding of the spirit and work of social justice in their local areas.

Is corruption a big problem?

The president has declared a strong campaign of zero tolerance toward corruption, which arose from a recognition that it had blocked development in the country. The campaign was also prompted by an external perception of Zambia’s ranking in the Transparency International Scale as the 11th most corrupt country in the world. That figure is disputed, but the figure is in the public perception. Frederick Chiluba, the former president, has been arrested and is currently on trial for what is termed “plunder of the national economy.” His passport was seized, so he cannot leave the country. However the trial turns out, at least it shows that the fight against corruption is being taken seriously.

What is Zambia’s relation to its neighbors?

Zambia is landlocked, surrounded as it is by seven countries. In terms of economic development, this means that any import or export of products has to travel long distances. This in turn means higher costs for things we bring in, like oil, and products we send out, like copper, because of transportation expenses. Zambia has also been affected by the conflicts in other African countries. In the past decade, it has been a major recipient of refugees from Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. Finally, the fact that we are neighbors to a major economic power like South Africa has also had an impact. Because of the liberalization of the borders, lots of South African merchandise is coming in. For those who have money, this is good, because they can buy products that were not available before. But most people in Zambia have little money and cannot afford to shop at stores selling South African products. Many small local growers and marketeers, moreover, have been crowded out, because they cannot compete with what South Africa sends in. And some big international companies, like Colgate, have left Zambia because they found that the cost of production is higher for them there than it would be elsewhere.

Is there progress toward the millennium development goal of environmental sustainability?

Environmental sustainability is related to problems like lack of clean water, poor sanitation and the destruction of the forests. Zambia is highly urbanized: 45 percent of the population lives in urban areas, and for those in the slum sections of cities, the water and sanitation situation is bad. As to the forests, they are disappearing fast, because one of the major energy sources is charcoal, which is used for cooking and heating. Preparing and selling charcoal is also an income-producing form of employment for poor people. I often see them carrying bags of charcoal, which is relatively inexpensive to buy. But the destruction of the forests is moving so fast that it is estimated that Zambia may be in a state of desertification in another 40 years. The government has a reforestation program, but it is not strong. The need for charcoal shows the connection between poverty and the heavy impact the poor have on the environment of a developing country like Zambia.

What gives you hope for Zambia?

My hope for Zambia is rooted in the people and their wonderful resilience and spirit of peaceful cooperation. The fact that there have been no wars or internal conflicts in 41 years of independence has made us in some ways the envy of our neighbors. Zambia is a country rich in natural resources, minerals, agricultural land, water and tourist sites. We have tremendous potential. A strong civil society, led by churches, works hard for greater development. My hope is daily fed by the religious spirit of the people. I feel energized to live, work and serve with the Zambians.

Peter Henriot, S.J., is executive director of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (www.jctr.org.zm) in Lusaka, Zambia. The interview was conducted in New York by George M. Anderson, S.J., an associate editor of America.